We snaked our way through the hills. The grass sprouted in clumps along the incline, only from a distance did it all seem to blend together, the sand revealing itself in patches. It was eight in the morning, and a cool breeze blew off the desert, the juniper bushes shining with dew. Sheep grazed in the Canary grass, and we could hear the sound of the bells that the rams wore from their necks. After driving past abandoned, shot-up tanks and the desert itself, Libya’s green hills were a welcome sight.
“Do you think they will attack today?” I asked Hamid. He blinked as the sun hit his eyes. I rolled the window down and took two cigarettes from the pack. The air was already tepid, promising a sweltering noon. I lit both cigarettes and handed one to Hamid.
“Insallah,” he said, and took a long drag. “If NATO gives the green light, then we attack.”
“It’s already been a week with no attack. They’re just taking potshots at each other.”
“True. You see, Gaddafi’s men have learned to be sneaky. They fly the same flags as us on their cars, so NATO can’t tell the difference. But we will attack when NATO gives the word that they took out their rocket launchers.
Mentioning the rocket launchers was enough for me to hear the scream of the Grado rockets in my head and the thundering noise of exploding shells. For two weeks now I had been listening for their sound on the Ajdabiya front. The advancing Gaddafi soldiers always attacked the lines of the rebels early in the morning, during prayer. They weren’t able to aim the grads precisely, and whenever they managed to hit, the destruction was massive.
“Nobody knows when the attack will be?”
“Allah Karim, Abu Abdel Hafiz! Only the transitional council knows. At least I hope somebody knows when this wretched offensive will be!”
I knew Hamid’s outburst wasn’t directed at me. His boy was stationed at Ajdabiya with a group of insurgents, and he would take part in the fight for Brega once the offensive began. Brega was a meat grinder. In a civil war with no end in sight, it had already changed hands four times.
We puffed our cigarettes in silence. I fixed my gaze on Hamid’s face. It was wrinkled with worry. He was just 50, but he appeared much older when the thought of his son crossed his mind. Then the wrinkles creased deeper across his face: because of their boys, fathers all over Libya were suddenly aging. Before the uprising, Hamid had been a doctor, but with his good English, he became a driver to foreign journalists during the conflict, along with serving under the transitional council. We had met in Benghazi, quite by accident, after the rocket attacks.
“I apologize that I can’t take you directly to Tobruk, Abu Abdel Hafiz,” he said, returning to a sort of calm. He had been calling me Abu Abdel Hafiz since I told him that I had named my son Hafiz. We had been sitting in his car when Gaddafi’s sharpshooters began to fire on us in Ajdabiya, and it was then that we became friends. People bond easier in war. Nobody wants to die next to a stranger.
“As long as you take me, no problem. I’m not rushing anywhere. And don’t worry about your boy. It will be all right.”
“Insallah. But if he dies, it will be for a just cause. God loves his martyrs.”
“But you don’t want him to die, do you?”
“Of course not. I am his father. But God’s ways are unfathomable. If God wills it, he will die as a martyr, and of course I also fear this.”
We turned off the paved road. The earth was red and damp, and the sun was so blindingly bright we could hardly see the ruins of Cyrene. The sunshine spilled from the hills and onto the ancient statues, columns, and ruined stone houses.
“We are going to Shahat, it’s close now,” said Hamid. “You can see a shahid burial.”
“One of your relatives?”
“No. They asked me to make an entrance in the register of the dead before the burial. I am a doctor, so it is something I can do.”
“Where are the doctors of the town?”
“At the front, like all the other men. Just the old and wounded stayed behind.”
“Why do you need a registry of the dead?”
“Because if we prevail, the new government will remember the martyrs of the revolution. Having the paperwork will help.”
At the checkpoint at the beginning of the street, the guards recognized Hamid’s car, and waved us on. We drove between the white-washed houses, and pulled up in front of a two-story house. In the yard stood a tent made of dark linen. From speakers rose the sound of devotional music. In front of the tent stood an older, gray-haired man. Next to him stood a young man of perhaps twenty.
“Let’s go and congratulate the father,” said Hamid, and killed the ignition.
“Won’t I be disturbing?”
“Of course not! You are bringing the news of his son to the world.”
The tent was almost full with people sitting on plastic chairs. A picture was positioned in the front: a portrait of the martyr, I believed, though I couldn’t make it out so well. Two men stepped up to the tent before us, but before they went in, each clasped the old man’s hand and said, “Congratulations on your son.”
“Ahmed Bakush, your son is already with the angels,” said Hamid in Arabic, when we arrived by the tent.
“Alhamdulillah,” answered the old man. “It is a great honor for us.”
He held his hand out to me. “You must be the journalist. Ahlen.”
“Thanks,” I said, taking his hand and shaking it, then involuntarily offering my hand to the young man as well.
“Khalid Bakus,” said the boy. He stood there looking downcast, his eyes red with sleeplessness. He had short black hair, his skin was light brown, and his eyes brown. He was striking, most certainly well liked among the local women.
“You can be proud of your brother, Khalid. Pray that God grants you as much courage as he had,” said Hamid, turning to the boy.
“Yes, I am proud,” came the choked response as the boy hung his head.
“Where is the Shahid?” asked Hamid.
“Inside. Hurry, we are waiting for you to begin the burial,” said the older man.
“OK, but we can’t stay for the ceremony. We have to get back to Tobruk, and find a car to Salloum.”
More pallbearers arrived. Hamid went back to the car and retrieved his attaché case from the trunk.
“Can I go in with you?” I asked, while we made our way to the house.
“Come, if you want.”
Hamid knocked loudly to signal we were coming in, and the women should clear out. The inside of the house was set in gloom, with the shades drawn tight. A tile stairway led to the upper level. After a search in the darkness, Hamid found the lamp.
It was a sparsely furnished room, with three matterres centered on a Persian carpet. The boy was laid out on one of the mattresses. He couldn’t have been more than 20 years old, his body torn and bloodied in fatigues that looked gritted over with sand. His skin was gray, like he had been dead for days. His eyes were closed. I stood speechless at the door. The boy was the spit and image of the one whom I had met outside the tent.
“You didn’t mention they were twins.”
“Indeed they are. Mohamed was older by just a few minutes. Both are 19. Now please give me a hand.”
“What are we going to do?”
“Undress him and examine the wounds.”
Hamid stepped up to the corpse, knelt beside it on the rug, and began to unbutton his fatigues. The boy’s face was dirty, and his skin and hair were encrusted with sand.
“Don’t think the parents are barbarians because they didn’t wash or change their martyr’s clothing,” said Hamid. He finally finished unbuttoning the jacket, the material coming unstuck from the wounds with a smacking sound. The ripe stench of congealed blood wafted across the room. The boy’s chest was bullet-pocked and smeared with blood.
“In accordance with the Hadith, the Shahid gets buried in the same place and in the same clothing in which their lives were taken,” he said. With clinical eyes he looked over the boy’s chest. He opened his attaché case and withdrew a form and a fountain pen. He touched the tip of the pen to one of the bullet wounds. I counted that there were three small red craters, each capped with blood.
“Yes, it’s a 7.62 size round,” said Hamid.
“How do you know?”
“The tip of my pen is the same size as a 7.62 round. This is the entrance wound. If you compare it to the pen, you can establish what kind of bullet it was. If the wound is smaller than the pen then a 9 mm shot was used, something like a pistol or machine gun. If bigger, then a 50 was used. It must be said that if you find a 50, you won’t have to measure it, because the body will be torn apart. A 50 sure tears apart the body. I do it this way because in Islam, it is a sin to cut up a martyr. The pen method is the only way we can establish just how he met his end.”
He began to fill out the form.
“The form concerning his internal organs, I won’t bother with,” he said.
“Do you know what happened?” I asked.
“Three days earlier there was a tank attack by Gaddafi’s men in Brega. Mohamed and his group took to a ditch while the tanks advanced toward the city. According to Khalid’s account, they lay petrified in the ditch because the tank had spotted them and began to fire. Nobody made a move except for Mohamed. It is obvious that between the two brothers, he was the more brave. Now help me turn him over, please.”
We stood, lifted the corpse, and turned him onto his stomach. The body was stiff. The shirt was just tatters on his back, the rounds had torn his skin to shreds where the bullet had exited. Hamid began to write again.
“Well the wounds definitely show that Mohamed fought like a true Mujahed. They only had one RPG; he jumped up and shot it at the tank, taking out its wheels. The tank returned fire, of course, but by then the others had already retreated.
“He might have lived if he was wearing a vest.”
“The Mujahed don’t wear them.”
“It slows them down.”
“It’s not stupid. A bullet-proof vest is thirteen kilos. Furthermore, every Mujahed hopes to be taken by God.
“And because of this they are willing to do stupid things?”
“No. Just willing to make sacrifices.”
“Because the prophet, peace be upon him, taught us, that he who makes a sacrifice for the just cause and loses his life, will go immediately to heaven.”
“Were both brothers Mujahed?”
“Yes. They both asked from their father to allow them to follow the call of the Jihad. Mohamed was the more fortunate. He is already with God. Khalid brought the body home. He didn’t stop at the front of Ajdabiya, but came straight here.”
“But you said before that he should be buried where he fell.”
“Yes, but it is not so strict. It is more important that we hold the ground. If Gaddafi’s soldiers break through again, they will desecrate the graves. That’s why Khalid brought the body home. Now help me turn him back.”
We flipped the body over. It wasn’t an easy job to dress him again, because the buttons were slippery with blood.
“It’s a big honor for their family. Ahmed Bakush should be very proud of his older boy. The whole of Libya should be as well. He lived and died according to Islam. Come on, let’s wash our hands.”
We stood and started downstairs. The sink was on the ground floor.
“Now what will happen?”
“Now the men will come in. They will sew him into white linen, and carry him on their shoulders to the graveyard. There is already an open grave waiting. We needn’t stick around for this, because we should get to Tobruk before sundown, and you need to find a car going to Salloum.”
As I was washing with lavender-smelling soap, I heard shouting coming from outside. We went to the door. A large crowd stood on the street, with their hands gesticulating wildly in the air. A few people in the crowd began to shove and push, and the women in the procession wailed loudly.
“Get in the car and wait,” said Hamid, putting the key in my hand. I sat in the car, and watched Hamid disappear into the crowd. I turned on the radio. The patriotic songs of Free Libya murmured forth, and then the provisional council’s spokesperson came on and announced that that the revolutionary army’s offensive to retake Brega had begun; currently the rebels were engaged in fighting in the city’s outer districts. It was a quarter hour before Hamid returned, walking to the car with quick footsteps. He opened the door and sat.
“OK, let’s go,” said Hamid, turning off the radio. Hamid gave the car some gas, and the wheels began to turn. We left the crowd behind, and drove away, turning past the checkpoint to the main road. We drove for a while in silence. He looked somehow pained.
“What was the commotion out there?” I asked, finally breaking the quiet.
“Khalid, the younger brother, shot himself.”
“What? What is Islamic about that?”
“Nothing. Suicide is the most disgusting sin. It will send you to hell.”
“Does this happen frequently?”
“Not at all. It is forbidden in Islam.”
We were back on the serpentine main road. The sun’s full strength was shining by now, and the air was balmy. Above us, Cyrene’s ancient rocks shined on the hillside like white teeth in a skull.
–translated by Matt Ellis
Sándor Jászberényi is a war correspondent who makes his living in the conflict zones of the Middle East. His book on the Arab Spring will be released later this year. His fiction has been published in most every major literary review in Hungary.